Friday, July 25, 2008

Joseph Addison On Humour

With essays on my mind lately, I re-read some by Joseph Addison that I had read when I was in high-school. It was nice to refresh my memory with Addison's definition of humor :

It is, indeed, much easier to describe what is not humour than what is; and very difficult to define it otherwise than as Cowley has done wit, by negatives. Were I to give my own notions of it, I would deliver them after Plato’s manner, in a kind of allegory, and, by supposing Humour to be a person, deduce to him all his qualifications, according to the following genealogy. Truth was the founder of the family, and the father of Good Sense. Good Sense was the father of Wit, who married a lady of a collateral line called Mirth, by whom he had issue Humour. Humour therefore being the youngest of this illustrious family, and descended from parents of such different dispositions, is very various and unequal in his temper; sometimes you see him putting on grave looks and a solemn habit, sometimes airy in his behaviour and fantastic in his dress; insomuch that at different times he appears as serious as a judge, and as jocular as a merry-andrew. But, as he has a great deal of the mother in his constitution, whatever mood he is in, he never fails to make his company laugh.

I wonder if the writing I have found the most humorous would fit Addison's exacting standards. I love James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Three Men In A Boat, Sue Townsend's The Diaries of Adrian Mole , A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole among many others. Since he does not cite examples of humor with the correct lineage, it is hard to see how the rules translate in the real world and if indeed they stand the test of time.

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